The great rabbi Harold Kushner is often quoted for saying, "No one ever said on their deathbed, 'I wish I'd spent more time at the office.'" And he's right, of course -- although many of us will wish we'd been more successful in our careers, and financially, having put in enough working hours isn't likely to make our "wish I could go back and change it" lists.
But what would we change? Well, one place to go for the answer is Cornell University's Legacy Project, which has gathered practical advice from more than 1,500 older Americans in an effort to distill some wisdom and guidance for the rest of us. The researchers asked them all what they regretted most, and in the "What's Up, Alison" segment from this episode of Motley Fool Answers, hosts Alison Southwick and Robert Brokamp discuss their eight most common responses.
A full transcript follows this video.
This video was recorded on Jan. 1, 2019.
Robert Brokamp: Alison, what's up?
Alison Southwick: Well, Bro, this is the time of year when people start thinking about New Year's resolutions, or, at the very least, they wake up from the fog of the holidays and realize that they spent way too much money or gained too much weight. So, then, roughly apparently two-thirds of us make New Year's resolutions. Do you make New Year's resolutions?
Brokamp: I do.
Southwick: What's your batting average for keeping them?
Brokamp: Oh, probably fifty-fifty. [laughs]
Southwick: And let me guess, most of your New Year's resolutions have to do with your health or money.
Brokamp: Yes, absolutely!
Southwick: That's not unusual. Most are along the lines of "Eat healthier, get more exercise, save more money." And then, of course, we completely abandon them around February. But what if we take the longer view and see what people truly regret in their old age? Then we'll work backwards with steps we can take to avoid being truly miserable after having lived a wasted life. Let's head to the research!
Brokamp: Let's do it!
Southwick: We're going to go to the Legacy Project out of Cornell. I feel like you've mentioned the Legacy Project on the podcast before.
Brokamp: It sounds familiar.
Southwick: It's led by some researchers out of Cornell. Basically, they gathered responses from 1,500 people over the age of 65 about all kinds of things, including their most common regrets in life. Here are, in no particular order, the eight most common regrets that the wise elder people in our life have. Ready?
Southwick: All right. No. 1: Not being careful enough when choosing a life partner.
Brokamp: Oh, yeah, sure. [laughs]
Southwick: Hopefully, this is getting better as a society. Hopefully, young men and women feel like they have more options and that your twenties aren't just a big game of musical chairs where you have to choose the closest one when the music stops. One person that they talked to for their research said that it was better to not get married than to marry the wrong person.
Brokamp: That's probably true. I think we are getting better. Isn't the divorce rate going down?
Southwick: Yeah, it is. We talked about that in the past, about how millennials are better at marriage then baby boomers.
Brokamp: Good job, millennials!
Southwick: Way to go, millennials! All right, No. 2, another regret that people have: Not resolving a family squabble. Some of the unhappiest people in their old age, researchers said, were those that had a rift with a family member like a child or sibling or a parent and never reconciled. That's sad.
Brokamp: Very sad.
Southwick: No. 3: Putting off saying how you feel. Apparently, not expressing love frequently enough was a common regret of older men.
Brokamp: Aww. I wonder if that's a generational thing. I feel like the today's man is a little more sensitive. Maybe I'm wrong. I don't know.
Southwick: I don't know.
Rick Engdahl: I love you guys!
Southwick: Thank you!
Brokamp: [laughs] I love you guys too! And you too, listeners!
Southwick: I think you guys are pretty OK. All right, No. 4: not traveling enough. Some people chose to wait until retirement to travel. But the researchers said that putting it off means your health could have already started failing before you've had a chance to do your lifelong dream of a trip to Italy or whatever.
Many of the older people said that they should have taken a trip sooner and that travel should have been more important than, say, a kitchen remodel. Not that travel has to be the cost of a kitchen remodel. The older people they talked to said you should just get out there more and travel.
Regret No. 5: Spending too much time worrying. Apparently, many of the people they talked to regretted about anxiety from worrying over things that never happened or they didn't have control over. The general advice was, just stop worrying. But that's so easier said than done!
Brokamp: That's why it didn't happen, because I worried about it. If I didn't worry about it, it would have happened.
Southwick: Right. So, for those of you who are like, "OK, I'm ready to stop worrying," I guess you can go back and listen to our episode on cognitive behavioral therapy. Literally, the advice was just, "Don't worry so much!" As if it's that easy. Whatever.
All right, No. 6: Not being honest. Apparently, lying and deceit gnaws away at you, slowly but surely. And then there you are on your deathbed, thinking about how you are a lying liar who lied.
Brokamp: [laughs] You're about to be judged.
Southwick: Yes. No. 7: Not taking enough career chances. People they talked to were in favor of taking more risk when it comes to your career. They regretted opportunities that they passed on or weren't brave enough to try. This one could potentially haunt me. I feel like it's awfully cozy here at The Motley Fool. And I am actually in a room with two men who have been working at the same place for... 20 years?
Brokamp: Twenty years next year, yeah.
Southwick: So that one might touch a chord here.
Engdahl: When you're in a warm bath, it's really hard to get out.
Southwick: [laughs] It's a really warm bath, it's true. All right, No. 8, not surprisingly, of course when you're older and everything hurts, you're going to regret not taking as good care of your body. When you're young, you're thinking that smoking or eating poorly or not exercising, OK, fine, whatever, I'll die a little sooner. But the problem is, you don't get to die. Thanks to the marvels of modern medicine, you get to suffer through years of chronic disease! Enjoy that!
Brokamp: So, none of them were like, "I wish I had saved more for retirement," or anything like that?
Southwick: No. But I don't know that there's really a definitive study on the area of what people regret in life. There were lots of books that people wrote after having had a career in hospice care or something like that. There's probably room for more rigorous research in the area of regret.
Brokamp: I read a recent study that we published on fool.com about, in terms of money, what are the biggest regrets. And one of them is, "I wish I had saved more money." One of the biggest determinant -- we've talked about this before -- of a happy retirement is, No. 1, health, but then financial security. It's hard to enjoy your golden years if you're racked with financial anxiety.
Southwick: Right. That falls in line with New Year's resolutions, those decisions of, "I want to save more, I want to be healthier," etc. Whereas a lot of the life regrets had a lot to do with relationships, relationships with family, not being honest, family squabbles, and not choosing the right life partner. A lot of the lifelong regrets actually had to do more with your relationships with people than your relationships with money or your health. Although health is in there, too.
Brokamp: Is your recommendation for people, as you think about your resolutions for this year, think of those things, see if anything rings a bell, strikes a chord?
Southwick: See, I have it here in my notes. "What's my takeaway?" Because Bro is such a stickler for a takeaway. So yes! As I was naming those things, if any one of those single regrets made you catch your breath or your heart skip a beat, or you were like, "Oh, yeah, OK." Even doing just one thing in the coming year that could get at that to help you have a happier 2019 and beyond. Is there someone that you could bury the hatchet with? Is there a trip you could plan? Flossing? None of these things are necessarily easy, but they aren't all dependent on building or changing habits, which, as we know, is really, really hard. One well-said "I love you" could apparently make a difference for the rest of your life. But also, definitely floss every day. And Bro, that's what's up.
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